One-Minute Book Reviews

February 9, 2012

Cruelty in Creative Writing Workshops — Quote of the Day / Francine Prose

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An old joke says that a sadist is someone who’s nice to a masochist. By that standard, you find both types in creative writing workshops that require students to submit their work for critiques by their classmates. Francine Prose suggests why in an interview with Jessica Murphy Moo in The Atlantic online, reprinted in Reading Like a Writer, that includes these comments:

Francine Prose: “I think that the idea of writing by committee, or learning to write by committee is insanity. It’s just simply insanity. I mean, writing is all about being different from everything else – not the same. So when you’re writing to satisfy the tastes of a group, and presumably you know those tastes after a while, that’s actually quite dangerous.

“ … there’s something essentially sadistic about the whole [workshop] process. I mean to sit there and have the love of your life – your work – something that close to your heart and soul, just ripped apart by strangers. …

Jessica Murphy Moo: “And not to be able to say anything.”

Francine Prose: “Yes – and not to be able to say anything. Who thought that up? It’s so cruel. And everybody essentially knows it’s so cruel, but that’s one of the many things you’re not allowed to say. This whole language of euphemism has sprung up around the inability to be honest. You can’t say, ‘This just bored the hell out of me.’ So instead you say, desperately, ‘I think you should show instead of tell.’ Where’d  that come from? I mean, tell that to Jane Austen!”

Comment from Jan:

Philip Hensher was right that a creative writing workshop “can be wonderful, with the right group, with a proper level of trust; or it can be atrociously unhelpful.” Journalist Cheryl Reed got little help from students’ comments she received while getting an MFA. “Most contributors offered terrible and conflicting advice,” she said on her blog. Reed added that although she received many favorable comments on her fiction, the workshop process on the whole wasn’t helpful: “It was mean and mean-spirited.”

I had to submit my work to peers in my undergraduate journalism classes and found the process neutral, neither helpful nor harmful. Perhaps the experience was benign because I had a gifted professor or because the rules for news-writing are clearer than for fiction: Your story has an inverted-pyramid structure or it doesn’t. I’ve also led workshops in college journalism classes I’ve taught, and they had more flexibility than those Prose describes: My students could respond to comments. But I’ve used workshops sparingly for reasons implicit in Reed’s remarks: They can amount to — if not in the blind leading the blind — the nearsighted leading the nearsighted. Some creative writing programs may require workshops partly because, in writing classes that last for several hours, they give everyone a break from the lecture format. For that reason alone, some students and professors welcome them.

You can follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter, where she often tweets about writing, by clicking on the “Follow” button at right.

(c) 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

January 3, 2012

Words Forbidden on SAT Questions / Quote of the Day From ‘Crazy U’

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Which is more of an ordeal: taking the SAT or writing the questions that appear on it? You might wonder after reading Andrew Ferguson’s Crazy U: One Dad’s Crash Course in Getting His Kid Into College (Simon & Schuster, 2011), a lively memoir of one father’s attempt to understand higher-education admissions rituals.

One of the most informative chapters in the book deals with the college-entrance exam that was originally known as Scholastic Aptitude Test and is now officially just the SAT. Ferguson learned that the authors of its questions must navigate a minefield of words or phrases forbidden because they might offend a test-taker or give one group an advantage over another. He summarizes some of restrictions imposed on the test-writers by the Educational Testing Service, which develops and administers the test for the College Board:

“The term ‘hearing impaired,’ to describe people whose hearing is impaired, is discouraged in favor of ‘deaf and hard of hearing.’ Test writers must steer clear of the words ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal.’ ‘Hispanic’ should not be used as a noun, and neither should ‘blind’; ‘black’ can be used only as an adjective. ‘Penthouse,’ ‘polo’ and other ‘words generally associated with wealthier social classes’ are likewise off-limits; ‘regatta,’ too, needless to say, along with any mention of luxuries or pricey financial instruments like junk bonds. ‘Elderly’ is to be avoided in describing people who are elderly. ‘America’ can’t be used to describe the United States.”

December 30, 2011

Why Do Children Like Animal Stories?

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Animal stories have appealed to young children for thousands of years. What accounts for their popularity? Peter D. Sieruta, a children’s literature critic and the author of Heartbeats: And Other Stories, writes in The Essential Guide to Children’s Books and Their Creators, edited by Anita Silvey:

“Infants, like puppies, kittens, and other young animals, not only share a diminutive size and appealing ‘cuteness’ but are also alike in their innocence and dependency on larger creatures.”

December 26, 2011

The Pros and Cons of Book Clubs – Quote of the Day / Francine Prose

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“ … book clubs have had both a positive and negative effect. On the one hand, they do get people reading and talking about reading. But on the other hand, when you’re reading for a book club, the whole time you’re thinking, I have to have an opinion and I’m going to have to defend it to these people. The whole notion of being swept away by a book pretty much goes out the window.”

Francine Prose in an interview conducted by Jessica Murphy for The Atlantic online, July 18, 2006, reprinted in the “About the Book” section of the paperback edition of Prose’s Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them (HarperPerennial, 2007).

November 22, 2011

‘The Greatest American Poem’ — Quote of the Day / Harold Bloom

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Critics may argue about whether the greatest American novel is Moby-Dick, The Great Gatsby or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Harold Bloom doesn’t equivocate about the best poem. The “essential American poem” is Walt Whitman’s elegy for Abraham Lincoln, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” he argues in his new The Anatomy of Influence

“‘Lilacs’ seems to me the greatest American poem because its largeness of vision is inevitably expressed by a metric of which the poet had become a master,” writes Bloom, perhaps America’s most distinguished academic critic. “There is a biblical reverberation to Whitman’s elegy, and not only because the hermit thrush’s song of death echoes the erotic intensity of the Song of Songs.” Bloom adds: “With splendid tact, Whitman avoids praising Lincoln’s victory over his own countrymen, and creates an elegy of 206 lines worthy of comparison with Milton’s ‘Lycidas’ and Shelley’s ‘Adonais.’”

www.janiceharayda.com

November 21, 2011

Why Did People Like ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’? Quote of the Day

Filed under: Classics,Novels,Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:05 am
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Slavery is evil, and so are the political and economic institutions that support it: These two great themes helped to make Uncle Tom’s Cabin one of the most important novels in American literature. But in the 1850s people didn’t see the book as a tract. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel set sales records, the scholar David S. Reynolds notes in Mightier Than the Sword: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Battle for America (Norton, 351 pp., $27.95). And if the book legitimized the Civil War for Northerners, it did so through a story that captivated them. Reynolds describes the appeal of the novel in his new book:

“No book in American history molded public opinion more powerfully than Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Published in 1852, it set sales records for American fiction. An international sensation, it was soon translated into many languages. The Boston preacher Theodore Parker declared that it was ‘more an event than a book, and has excited more attention than any book since the invention of printing.’ Henry James noted that Stowe’s novel was, ‘for an immense number of people, much less a book than a state of vision, of feeling and of consciousness in which they didn’t sit and read and appraise and pass the time, but walked and talked and laughed and cried.’

“James was right. Sympathetic readers of Uncle Tom’s Cabin were thrilled when the fugitive slave Eliza Harris carried her child across the ice floes of the Ohio River and when her husband George fought off slave catchers in a rocky pass. They cried over the death of the angelic little Eva and were horrified by the fatal lashing of Uncle Tom, the gentle, strong, enslaved black man. They guffawed at the impish slave girl Topsy and shed thankful tears when she embraced Christianity. They sneered at the selfish hypocrite Marie St. Clare and loathed the cruel slave owner Simon Legree. They were fascinated by the brooding, Byronic Augustine St. Clare and were appalled by stories of sexual exploitation involving enslaved women like Prue and Cassy.”

You can follow Janice Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar.

September 25, 2011

How Comanches Used Books as Armor: Quote of the Day

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In 1860 Comanches gang-raped, tortured and killed Martha Sherman, nine months pregnant and living with her husband in Parker County, Texas. Twenty-four-year-old Charles Goodnight joined a posse of Texas Rangers and Seventh Cavalry soldiers who pursued her assailants, and before doing battle with any Indians, he found a pillowcase with Sherman’s Bible in it. Why had the Comanches taken the book when they fled their victim’s cabin? S. C. Gwynne writes in Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall the the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History(Scribner, 2011), a finalist for the 2011 Pulitzer prize for general nonfiction:

“According to Goodnight, Comanche shields, made of two layers of the toughest rawhide from the neck of a buffalo and hardened in fire, were almost invulnerable to bullets when stuffed with paper. When Comanches robbed houses, they invariably took all the books they could find.”

A review of Empire of the Summer Moon will appear soon on this site.

August 15, 2011

What Was So Great About Woodstock? ‘Boomer Nation’ Responds

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Americans tend to mythologize Woodstock, the outdoor rock festival that helped to define the counter-culture of the 1960s. Historian Steve Gillon tries to put the event in context in Boomer Nation: The Largest and Richest Generation Ever and How It Changed America (Free Press, 2004):

“The biggest celebration of ‘peace and love and music’ took place on August 15, 1969, when 500,000 young people gathered at Max Yasgur’s 600-acre farm near Bethel, New York. ‘Woodstock,’ as it came to be referred to, included a stellar lineup of musical talent that included Jimi Hendrix, the Who, the Grateful Dead, Joe Jocker, Janis Joplin, and Sly and the Family Stone. Whether they attended the concert or not, the generation that came of age during the 1960s embraced Woodstock’s freedom-espousing spirit. …

“Woodstock emerged as a symbol of youthful rebellion, but it also underscored the problems plaguing alternative communities. Since most of the people attracted to rock festivals and communes were trying to escape society, they resisted all form of authority. The result was often anarchy. Woodstock organizers, for example, were overwhelmed by the size of the crowds. There was such a severe shortage of water, food, and medical and sanitation facilities that New York governor Nelson Rockefeller declared a state of emergency. ‘I went to Woodstock and I hated it,’ recalled singer Billy Joel. ‘I think a lot of that community ‘spirit’ was based on the fact that everybody was so wasted.’”

August 14, 2011

What Is ‘Theme’ in Fiction? / Quote of the Day From ‘Story’

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Theme has become a rather vague term in the writer’s vocabulary. ‘Poverty,’ ‘war,’ and ‘love,’ for example, are not themes; they relate to setting or genre. A true theme is not a word but a sentence – one clear sentence that expresses a story’s irreducible meaning.’’

From Robert McKee’s Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting (It Books/Harper Collins, 1997).

July 14, 2011

The Greatest Influence of France on Culture / Quote of the Day

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“Thomas Jefferson’s famous observation, ‘Every man has two countries, his own and France,’ bears witness to the great influence France has had throughout the ages. While the visual arts and music have of course played a very important role, it is perhaps above all through its written texts that France has exercised such a strong impact on world culture and thought.”

From One-Hundred Great French Books: From the Middle Ages to the Present (BlueBridge, 2010), by Lance Donaldson-Evans, professor of romance languages at the University of Pennsylvania.

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